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Baker Cheese in St. Cloud, Wis. makes about 3 million sticks of string cheese a day. The company, which is more than 100 years old, started as a cheddar plant and transitioned to making mozzarella as demand increased. Sarah Kloepping/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

String cheese inventor, no. String cheese innovator, yes. That's Wisconsin's Baker Cheese.

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ST. CLOUD, Wis. - String cheese may be a staple of kids' school lunches these days, but the market research that gave rise to the now ubiquitous cheese was conducted during the late 1970s in bars. And at parties. And really anywhere Francis Baker could find people to answer a simple question about his cheese experiment: "Hey, what do you think about this?"

Beer and cheese is a natural pairing in Wisconsin; no surprise that string cheese took off from there.

“It was the first snack cheese,” says Brian Baker, president of Baker Cheese, located in Fond du Lac County midway between Fond du Lac and Sheboygan. He is Francis' grandson.

What started as a couple hundred pounds a month in 1977 has become the only cheese Baker Cheese produces these days. Nearly 3 million sticks per day.  All of it, says Brian, made to order.

And it all began with a "what if" moment followed by plenty of good old-fashioned innovation, with a dash of risk.

INVENTOR? NO. PIONEER? DEFINITELY.

String cheese inventor isn't a title Brian claims as part of his family heritage, but he confidentially proclaims, “We certainly were a pioneer of it.”

The path to string cheese was partially paved by a newfangled food craze that began sweeping America in the 1950s — pizza.

Frank Baker started Baker Cheese making cheddar in 1916, but with pizza driving demand for mozzarella, he and his son, Francis, went with the hot cheese. They were a good couple of decades into exclusively producing mozzarella cheese by the late '70s.

By this time, consumers were snatching up smaller blocks of mozzarella, plenty from Baker Cheese, to shred on pizza and in other dishes at home.

After attending a trade show about characteristics of mozzarella — including its stretchy nature when melted — Francis started thinking of a way to turn it into a snack food.

He took a consumer-sized ball of mozzarella, as Brian tells the story, and heated it enough to stretch and roll it into a rope, then cut it into single-serving size pieces. Then the consumer research at taverns and parties began.

His timing for this mozzarella innovation couldn't have been better.

SHREDDED OR STRING? A DECISION

With positive feedback and growing demand, the third generation of Baker family members was working with Francis to automate the process of heating, stretching and cutting 1-ounce sticks.

It proved to be a fortuitous decision even though in 1980 string cheese accounted for just 5 percent of Baker Cheese's production.

Mass-produced shredded cheese for consumers was coming soon and would make a big cut into consumer demand for block mozzarella. Because what self-respecting American isn't willing to spend a few extra pennies to save minutes of work shredding mozzarella by hand?

As the joy of shredded cheese spread, Brian says it left his grandfather, dad and uncles with a key decision: "Are we going to focus on string cheese where there was an opportunity for growth or are we going to get equipment to shred and compete with bigger cheese producers?"

Not that it was like they flipped a switch and the next day were exclusively selling string cheese, but by the 1990s string cheese was about 50 percent of production.

That was in part thanks to an innovation in string cheese equal to shredded mozzarella.

SINGLE SERVE PLEASE

Individually wrapped sticks showed up in coolers during the late '80s.

It added another level of convenience. It would become grab-and-go food long before it was the expectation for overbooked, busy families.

While Baker-branded string cheese is being grabbed all across Wisconsin, says Brian, almost 90 percent of what comes out of the Baker Cheese plant is private label. Meaning people on the go in all 50 states, Mexico, South Korea and other countries are grabbing Baker Cheese.

Ordering private label string cheese allows companies to offer the popular snack food without the added costs of specialized equipment. It's beneficial for Baker Cheese, too.

"It’s allowed us to be focused on the string cheese process and innovating," Brian says.

Innovation is hardly the single reason for the company's success.

MORE THAN A GIMMICK

"The quality of the cheese was going to sell itself more than anything else," says Brian. "You can only gimmick things up too much. You better have a pretty darn good product. ... It’s still our focus.”

Darn good cheese, according to Brian, starts with Wisconsin milk.

"Local milk," says Brian. "One of the key pieces to why we are so successful and the product is so fresh. Over 95 percent of the milk for our conventional string cheese comes from farmers within a 75-mile radius of the plant ... that’s really paid dividends."

Then there are the seven licensed cheesemakers on staff with more than 135 years of string cheese-making experience.

Baker makes full use of that experience, not just for quality but with new products.

NEW STRINGS

"Most people say, what else do you do? A good business plan would be to diversify a little bit," Brian says. "Our diversification is within our string cheese category — organic, smoked, jalapeno, low-fat — all those things are really different products."

Baker has been making a smoked string cheese for 25 years. That's hardly their last new string cheese.

Brian estimates that in the last 18 months they've used a small-batch cooker to test about 16 recipes. Some under serious consideration for going to market. Some just for fun.

When your business is just string cheese, you make sure a new product isn't going to bomb — you make sure it's going to be the bomb.

"We are practical, have to be aware of risks if something doesn’t go well," says Brian."There’s always room for new opportunities."

Baker's jalapeno string cheese was judged best in the flavored string cheese category at the 2016 Wold Championship Cheese Contest after just a couple of months on the market.

Taking a chance on jalapeno paid off with judges and consumers but is hardly the biggest risk in company history.

BIG RISK

As Baker Cheese grew, there were new needs. The fourth generation was off pursuing careers related to their college degrees.

At no point were the four great-grandchildren of Frank Baker commanded, guilted or otherwise coerced into making string cheese their careers.

Making cheese was a summer job through high school and college, says Brian, but none of them had gone off to college with the intent of returning to Baker.

But the pull of the growing family business would bring them back. One by one.

"Independently we all had a desire to come back or were missing that or through our careers had developed a really strong skill set the company needed," says Brian, who returned to Baker in 1998.

An annual family fishing trip lured Brian back. As he talked with his family about Baker Cheese and updated them on his work in Chicago and Milwaukee, he realized the family business offered him something he didn't know he was looking for.

"I was very close to my grandfather and dad and uncles. They were all very skilled, but they were all good men. Utmost of integrity, very social people, very close to their community. They were great stewards of our community, and somehow that resonated with me a little bit, and I think I was finding that I was missing a little bit of that."

At the same time Baker Cheese was about to embark on its largest expansion and riskiest endeavor. It was to build a brand new string cheese facility.

"I had some of the skill sets to help," says Brian. "This would be a time, if I had an interest."

Baker Cheese broke ground on a new facility in 1999. The first step of a three-part expansion plan.

"Before that, we weren’t able to keep up with demand and had to turn customers away," says Brian.

Production capacity was built beyond just meeting current demand. There was a need for continued growth in sales to match the size of the expansion.

Once again, a national trend played a role in Baker Cheese success.

HELLO LOW-CARB DIET

The second phase of facility expansion began in 2003, in the midst of the low-carb craze. Call it the Atkins or South Beach diet, it was a boon for string cheese. Brian says sales spiked at that time before backing off a bit, but not that much.

Demand has been strong enough, says Brian, that they outgrew the 2003 expansion by 2010 and another expansion is in the works.

The plant operates five days a week with a few Saturdays during high-demand times. Put another way, they're turning 2 million pounds of milk into about 180,000 pounds of cheese in a day.

Diet trends notwithstanding, string cheese has staying power as a popular snack food.

WHOLE LOTTA STRING CHEESE LOVE

Baker's regular string cheese packs 7 grams of protein in 80 calories.

A piece of string cheese and an apple as an afternoon snack trumps a bag of chips and a candy bar for nutrients and protein. And you still get the salty-sweet flavor combination.

It's difficult to discount the fun factor of pulling a string cheese apart.

"It gets marketed to kids a lot and it should, but a lot of people that were kids in the '80s and '90s are adults now and still want to have it and it is kind of fun.”

Though, there is a trick to making the most of the string cheese. It's Pinterest fail proof.

STRING REALITY

String cheese is to mozzarella what cheese curds are to cheddar. It's best enjoyed fresh. Let it warm up a bit before peeling to maximize stringiness. You may even be able to induce a few squeaks.

If patience isn't your thing, nuke it. Brian says customers have told him that string cheese is better after microwaving it for 7 to 8 seconds.

Though from personal experience, I say a piece plucked from the twisting, turning, lazy river brine bath just before it gets packaged is the best string cheese you'll ever eat.

“We have a great job, we get to do quality control through the plant," says Brian. "We’re the owners, we get to make sure everything is fine; that just means we get to have a free snack. It’s fun. People ask me all of the time … 'Do you ever get sick of it?' Well, it’s not like we eat 10 pieces a day, right, but, no, we don't."

Daniel Higgins writes about food and drink for USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin  
Email: daniel.higgins@gannettwisconsin.com,  
Twitter and Instagram @HigginsEats, facebook.com/gwmdanhiggins.

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